Matilda Wormwood is a pint-sized child genius who loves books. Unfortunately, her vapid parents are only interested in their television and making money, and they think their brainy daughter is an absolute aberration. But Matilda fights back. She pulls naughty pranks on her parents - leaving her dad with green hair, and his hat glued to his head. She runs off to the library as often as she can. And, in Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation of this classic kid’s book, she sings for justice - “Just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it!”
Matilda The Musical is close to the spirit of Roald Dahl’s book in many ways - Matilda is fierce, clever, and fun, and the show is packed with the same hijinks, naughtiness, and firm conviction that, most of the time, grown-ups are just not fair. But it’s much more of a comedy than the book or the film ever was. Mrs Phelps the librarian, (played by Melanie La Barrie) who is ridiculously eager to see Matilda and to hear her storytelling, adds a lot of humour to the show. Mr and Mrs Wormwood are caricaturish villains, who do a lot of comical wriggling and sassy dance moves, respectively, and Bertie Calvert, in drag as Miss Trunchbull, clearly relishes the part of evil headmistress and sings campy songs about her days as Olympic hammer-throwing champion. It’s all great fun - but, being a fan of the film as a child, I’d hoped for more time devoted to Matilda’s magical powers. She uses them only twice in the show, to tip over a glass and to scare Trunchbull, and their magical aspect is left quite understated - no tornados of flying books here!
The best thing about this show, though, is the outstanding set design and staging. The entire outline of the stage is covered in oversized coloured Scrabble-tiles, popping out with a very cool 3-D effect. Rolling library stacks, towering impossibly tall, make the perfect setting for Matilda’s bookworm imagination to run wild. The stage floor, too, hides an impressive bag of tricks: not only are the schoolchildren’s desks seamlessly retractable, but a skeleton frame of Mrs Wormwood’s boudoir table pops up during Matilda’s hair-dye prank. The most impressive feat of all, though, is when Miss Trunchbull spins poor Lavender (Ellie Simons) around by her pigtails, flinging her into the air - by what illusion, I couldn't tell from the balcony - and moments later, Lavender falls from the air and lands with a thump in the aisle, only to hurry back on stage entirely unruffled.
The kids in general put in a lot of enthusiasm and effort in the show - while they don’t all get a chance to shine individually, they are polished and energetic in every musical number, with some really fun choreography by Peter Darling. Matilda, played on the night I visited by Cleo Demetriou, was a confident actress and singer, packing a feisty punch. I would have to say, though, that the chorus of adults playing schoolchildren didn’t seem to add much to the mix - it just looked gangly.
The musical numbers are fun, bouncy, and include some very funny lyrics courtesy of Minchin - at one point Mrs Wormwood complains of a “smarting front bottom” in the hospital after giving birth. The songs are not particularly memorable, however, and the show just needs some catchier tunes that leave the audience humming on their way home.
All said, and despite those few qualms, Matilda The Musical is funny, visually spectacular, and nobody can watch this show without feeling a touch of sadness for poor Matilda, so utterly unloved by her parents. Her gutsy rebellion is heartwarming, and when the show ends with a rousing chorus of “We’re revolting children!”, it’s hard not to admire their bravery. Fans of Roald Dahl’s celebrated children’s novel will find that this musical stays close to the spirit of the book, while making the most of staging and set design, comedy, and musical numbers that bring it to life.
Name of Show: Matilda the Musical
Book: Dennis Kelly
Music and Lyrics: Tim Minchin
Premiered: 9 December 2010 (The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford)
This Production Opened: 24 November 2011
Tweet: Matilda the Musical brings the Roald Dahl classic about a mistreated-but-ultra-brainy little girl to life in this musical adaptation.
Synopsis: Matilda Wormwood is a pint-sized child genius who loves books. Unfortunately, her vapid parents are only interested in the television and making money, and think their brainy daughter is an absolute aberration. Matilda faces injustice not only from her family, but from her nasty, villainous headmistress Miss Trunchbull. She finds comfort in the library and in her kindhearted teacher Miss Honey, but finally decides it’s time to fight back: Matilda discovers she has telekinetic powers that provoke anarchy at the school, and help her to overturn the Trunchbull’s strict regime. Finally, her parents announce they’re moving to Spain and are on the run from a dodgy business deal. Matilda begs them to let her stay with Miss Honey, which they do, leaving her to enjoy a better life.
- Bruce Bogtrotter miraculously manages to eat the whole of Trunchbull’s enormous cake, cheered on by his classmates.
- Matilda’s uses her superpowers to tip over a glass of water - containing a newt - onto the headmistress.
Why See It: Fans of Roald Dahl’s celebrated children’s novel will find that this musical stays close to the spirit of the book, while making the most of staging and set design, comedy, and musical numbers that bring it to life. Young theatre-goers will find plenty of dazzling effects and naughtiness, while grown-ups looking to treat their inner child will appreciate Tim Minchin’s very funny lyrics.
Caveat: The musical puts less emphasis on Matilda’s magical powers than, say, the film version: we have to wait until halfway through the second act before she discovers her telekinesis, and Matilda uses her powers only twice. The only other caveat is that the musical numbers are not as catchy or memorable as they could be. And if you are bringing young children, be aware that the amplified sound can be quite loud.
- The show has won seven Olivier awards, which is the most ever won by a single show.
Matilda arrived at The Cambridge Theatre thanks to a dream selection of talent assembling under the banner of a Royal Shakespeare Company production. Stadium-selling comedian Tim Minchin provides original songs, prolific Matthew Warchus directs, and the acclaimed writer Dennis Kelly delivers the book. Together they create a stunning new musical, based on the original story by the inimitable Roald Dahl. Matilda is a captivating musical that revels in the anarchy of childhood, the power of imagination, and the inspiring story of a girl who dares to change her destiny. This magical show is pure escapism for all ages and you have to see the lead performance of the young Matilda with your own eyes to believe it. Never before has such a young talent filled a West End stage so magnificently. The Royal Shakespeare Company's world premiere production has mesmerised young and old alike and continues to play to packed houses at London's Cambridge Theatre. ‘It’s hard to imagine a show capturing the spirit of Roald Dahl’s literary world more perfectly than this one’ The Observer
Cambridge TheatreSeven Dials 32-34 Earlham Street
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2H 9HU
Tuesdays 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday 7.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm, Sunday 3pm
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes
The RSC Production of Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical © Manuel Harlan
Cleo Demetriou as Matilda and Paul Kaye as Mr Wormwood in Matilda The Musical © Manuel Harlan
Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull © Manuel Harlan